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The Wire: season one
cast: Dominic West, Jorn Doman, Idris Elba, Frankie R. Faison, and Larry Gilliard Jr

creator: David Simon

775 minutes (18) 2002
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
HBO DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
If there were any kind of justice in the world, The Wire would go out on BBC1 after the 9 o'clock news, and would be hailed by all and sundry as yet further proof that frankly nobody can touch the US at the moment when it comes to high quality drama. Like The Sopranos, Deadwood and Curb Your Enthusiasm this series comes to us from the subscription-based US cable channel HBO. However, evidently there is no kind of justice in the world as The Wire took ages to cross the Atlantic (the series started in 2002), and when it did it wasn't picked up either by Channel 4, E4 or Sky. So as a result it sits on a tiny digital channel and is largely ignored. So this DVD release gives us the first real opportunity to look into what all the fuss is about.

The Wire is a gritty cop show that focuses on one big case per series giving it time to dwell on the procedural aspects of police work rather than having problems resolved by explosions and car chases. This invites comparisons with The Shield and the CSI franchise but actually it is different to both of them.

The Shield is notable for the moral ambiguity of its characters; some cops are corrupt, others are out and out criminals and they pretty much all bend the rules when it suits them. The Shield essentially detaches the police series from any sense of morality... there are no heroes, only protagonists. In a cosmetic sense, this is also true of The Wire. The series follows an investigative detail composed of rejects and no-hopers as they try to build a case against the Avon Barksdale criminal organisation that runs a sizeable chunk of all drug-dealing in Baltimore. The series follows the lives of the police and the drug-dealers and refuses to take sides between them. However, what differentiates this from The Shield is that The Wire clearly has a moral centre. While the various police may have sordid pasts and be political animals, they are all more or less good. The series suggests that moral corruption and political expediency cripple the police the higher up the chain of command you go. So while the detail may be clean, they are forced to get their hands dirty whenever they deal with the higher echelons and if they ever hope to gain any kind of professional advancement. Similarly, the drug-dealers on the street are largely portrayed in a sympathetic light as they frequently lament that they can't do business without violence or putting people down. The drug-dealers draw their support from the local community, and they do this by helping out the local children and generally putting money into the hands of people who wouldn't otherwise have it. Indeed, the drug-dealers see themselves as a family that look out for each other, but like the police, the further up the ladder you go the more less important morals and the family become.

The Wire follows the story of one particular dealer, Barksdale's nephew, as he struggles with his sense of self and his principles, showing that there are good reasons why people in the inner cities turn to drug-dealing, and it's not just the money. Just as The Shield talks of the corrupt methods of the L.A.P.D., The Wire suggests that ultimately it is power that corrupts on both sides of the thin blue line. Just as the dealers talk about being professional, the police talk about being 'a good police' that does his job and gets the evidence without cutting corners or blowing things up. In fact, what really makes this series compulsive viewing is the portrayal of the case.

In CSI, there's little room for character development as the police are forced to run through multiple cases in 45 minutes of television. Despite also arguably being a procedural series, The Wire couldn't be more different in that it follows only one case per series. Each new episode brings a new small insight into how the Barksdale family operates. Initially, they use informants to identify the key players and then they move to surveillance before following the money out of the towers and into local politics. There's a fascinating sense of the detail really building their case as they get closer and closer to learning about Barksdale himself. DVD is the perfect medium for watching this series because The Wire is almost cheerfully inaccessible. Because it refuses to break itself down into CSI-style discrete episodes, in all likelihood if you miss the beginning of this series then you'll have no idea of who is who and what is going on. This style of writing is only possible because HBO allegedly tailors its series to the demands of its paying customers and not the advertisers. As a result there's no need for the viewer to be able to slip in and out of The Wire, allowing the writers to tell one story in great detail. It is this that makes The Wire so original and so utterly compelling to watch. You are sucked into the building of the case against Barksdale and every new threat to the detail's work from senior officers brings incredible dramatic tension as the detail are forced to compromise and make shady deals to keep the case going. For most of the series, he whole story sits on a knife-edge as you half expect the work of the detail to come crashing down around them.

The way the series is written, while groundbreaking and utterly compelling isn't the only this The Wire has going for it though. The ensemble cast work incredibly well together despite there being no truly standout performances. The cast is largely composed of unknowns and they all acquit themselves of the material with great style. The dialogue is also consistently excellent and shows not only an ear for the jargon of the streets and the police station but a real knack for comedy, particularly a scene where two policemen work a crime scene communicating only with differently intoned 'fucks'.

The real strength of the series though is the characterisation. Each new character is a joy to watch from the brilliant but politically and personally disastrous detective to the wisecracking, manipulative homicide sergeant to Omar the gay stick-up man who robs drug dealers but never swears and never betrays his own principles. There are no noir archetypes here, only big characters.

The Wire is said by many to be the best thing on US TV at the moment and it's easy to see why. It's a series that honestly has something new to say about an incredibly well trodden subject, what it says it says with style and through characters that are all memorable and all an absolute joy to watch. It's definitely better than The Bill.
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